Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Do We Really Need CHRISTIAN Film?


My Interview With Film Maker Todd Shaffer--Glorious Films. I'd like to introduce my readers to Todd Shaffer; though a man of many talents, the scope of this interview is about his role as the Creative Director of Glorious Films (he's asked me to be on the GF advisory board). One of the first-rate films produced by GF is The Promise, a remarkably well-done animated musical based on Luke's account of the Advent of our Lord. In this interview you will learn the history of film, a Christian apologetic for the arts, and the passion of an amazingly gifted artist theologian who is bringing film making to new heights for the glory of Christ. 
It seems to me that there are more Christian films being made today than ever before. In the midst of the array of film makers out there (all no doubt zealous but some clearly better than others), what is unique about what you are doing with Glorious Films?

The challenge with any “Christian” filmmaking effort is to find filmmakers who are not only skilled in film craft, but also skilled at rightly handling the Word of God. A zealous spirit married with skill in filmmaking is good, but these will never overcome an immature handling of the story content, whether that content is a police procedural, military action, or Christian/biblical theme. For example, if I set out to make a police procedural I better have a command of police procedure, or the film, no matter how big a budget or how well made, will fall flat. In such cases it’s good, and often necessary to have qualified advisor's, and at Glorious we have assembled a strong group of advisor's, but this doesn’t guarantee our problem is solved. So much depends on the maturity of the filmmaker to be able to act on the counsel given.
My scriptwriting process is always preceded by and bathed in the careful expositional study of Scripture. I see myself as a pastor whose pulpit is a camera, and I have to master the material because I’m the one choosing and implementing and shaping it into a visual story. There are many crossovers between a sermon and a narrative film, and my preparation reflects that. I lived in Luke 1 & 2 for almost a year while I was writing the script for The Promise. That study resulted in a 14-week sermon series that I was able to preach at my church. A strong board of mature advisors who have a far greater command of biblical truth, of church history, decades of ministry experience, and have lived life longer than I, can only make me a better filmmaker.

What is your theological/ministry background?

I was raised in a theologically nominal, yet active, Southern Baptist Church in the Mid-Atlantic. At eighteen I had a crisis of faith when I realized I was unable to intelligently articulate my faith beyond empty clichés. My family moved to the Rocky Mountains where we joined a Bible church that taught the Bible more than my previous church, but it was involved in Dominion theology, praying down demons over cities, binding Satan who always managed to get loose because we would have to bind him again the following week. I was acutely aware of being theologically adrift on the sea, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.
After graduating from University I moved to Los Angeles, and I got involved in John MacArthur’s church. I didn’t know a whole lot about MacArthur, but for the first time in my life I sat under the preaching of a man who trusted God’s Word and taught it to me so that I felt my feet standing on solid ground. And it wasn’t just about MacArthur, there were many other leaders and teachers at that church who had a command of Scripture. I took seminary level courses through the Logos program in theology and hermeneutics, and I devoured books from their theologically rich bookstore. These years at Grace Community Church revolutionized my spiritual life.
When we moved to Montreal we had no idea what we were getting into spiritually. Less than half of one percent of people in Quebec identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Finding a healthy church was near impossible. We ended up serving a recovering seeker-friendly Baptist church called Renaissance. We spent nine years there ministering alongside a bi-vocational pastor who was one of the few Protestant preachers who would simply open the Bible and teach it. There were plenty of opportunities to minister, so I led Bible studies, men’s groups, biblically-based marriage classes and started to preach. As I met more pastors I was invited by other churches to fill their pulpits as they needed.
It takes me a good ten to twenty hours to prepare for forty-five minute exposition, and it was tough given that I had a full-time job and four children at home, but I’m grateful for every minute I spent studying God’s Word in preparation for preaching.

What is your creative and film making background?

I grew up drawing comics, making movies, and knowing I would one day work in movie making in some creative capacity. I studied filmmaking at Montana State University — graduated — moved to Los Angeles with my senior film under my arm and immediately landed a job at a small, yet very busy, commercial animation studio in West Hollywood. This is where my real training began — making animated commercials, which are really 30 second short films. We hired a lot of Disney and Dreamworks animators to moonlight on our productions, and this gave me the luxury of working directly with top talent, without being swallowed up by the big animation studio machine. LA was seeing an animation Renaissance in the 90’s and there was a lot of very talented people teaching drawing, painting and animation, and being a young man I availed myself to these golden opportunities.
Our company specialized in marrying animation to live-action, so I was on set quite a bit working with directors, cameramen and actors. One of my first directing assignments was a terribly conceived commercial with an insane schedule. The client had already bought air time for the Super Bowl, which cost about a million dollars, and there was almost nothing left for the production budget. We managed to get it done, and I can say I directed a Super Bowl commercial — just don’t ask me what it was.
After nine years I wanted out of advertising, so I got a job as a character animator on a feature film which ended up being such a bad production none of the animators will admit to working on it. I left LA and moved to the East Coast to start a career in oil painting, but I kept getting sidetracked by old clients sending me good paying animation assignments, and I never got my painting career off the ground.
Then I got a call from an old acquaintance who was working in Montreal at Studio Pascal Blais. They needed a director, and at that point in my life I realized that while I loved painting pictures, my heart was captive to the moving image. My first day on the job was 9/11. I spent six years directing commercials, and then met Ron Mezey who hired me to help him develop a character animation studio. A few years later we financed The Promise and Glorious Films was born.

Some Christians believe that while books and Christian literature are good film and movies are either outright evil (there are far fewer of these today) or just not very helpful or important; we can do just fine without the genre of film (probably more of these). How would you reply to a well-intentioned Christian who doesn't think the church really needs Christian films and film makers?

The short answer is that we don’t need Christian film or filmmakers. Film has only been around for one hundred years, but the church has been around for 2000. We can lead healthy, flourishing spiritual lives, church ministries and outreach efforts without film.
The long answer is more involved. The first thing I would say is that we have to distinguish between the raw art form of film from how it’s being used by Christian filmmakers, and even how it’s being used by Hollywood. We have to be honest and say that, in spite of good intentions, most Christian films are generally poorly crafted, theologically flawed, and an embarrassment to the church. The “Christian Film” genre is the only film genre that has a highly skeptical target audience, and filmmakers are responsible for breeding this well-earned skepticism.
Once we can strip away all the preconceptions of how film has been used in the past by Christian filmmakers, now we can begin talking about whether the church needs Christian film. Since it’s a very young art form, let’s consider similar art forms that have preceded it, and ask the same question. Did the church need artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rembrandt? Did the church need composers like Bach or Handel? Did the church need authors of fictional literature like John Bunyan or C. S. Lewis? The answer is, of course we can live without them, but their work enriches and challenges our lives.
The question we should ask is not whether the church needs Christian films, but is it possible for Christian films to enrich our lives, enlarge our faith and challenge our walk? Can Christian films help us fulfill Deuteronomy 6:6-9 “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Can Christian film play a role in what we’re called to in Psalm 146:4-7?

4 One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
5 On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6 They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
7 They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

Can Christian film help us with our great commission to go into all the world and make disciples? In a media rich world, I think we need to think more deeply about how we use, or don’t use, media in our missions efforts. You may not be able to smuggle Bibles into Iran very easily, but media often doesn’t know borders. We need to heed what Carl F. H. Henry said, “To neglect mass media…for evangelizing the earth is a sin for which twentieth-century Christians might well be held specially responsible….Christians dare not try to work and witness for God as if they still lived in a ‘pre-radio, pre-television, pre-electronic era,” (Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis, 1967, page 43-44.)
Have Christian filmmakers done a good job with these things? Do we need Christian film? No. Can we use Christian film to help us in life and ministry? Yes. And the most exciting thing is that I don’t think we’ve begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

You just said, “I don’t think we’ve begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible?” I'm hearing significant foreshadowing in that statement. Can you expand on that?

In the history of the arts, film is the youngest of all art forms. The first major talkie was The Jazz Singer, released a mere 87 years ago. If we compare film history to the history of classical music (broadly speaking,) and we say that Monteverdi in 1590 was the Darryl Zanuck who produced The Jazz Singer in 1927, 87 years later would be 1677, the middle of the Baroque era. Vivaldi would be born a year later. Bach and Handel wouldn’t be born for another 8 years. There aren’t any stand out composers between Monteverdi and Vivaldi other than Pachelbel. If you can grant that comparison, that’s where we are in film today.
Cinema has been largely defined by variations of the cumbersome Hollywood studio system. There have been other defining movements, such as the French New Wave, the Italian Neo-Realists, the American Independents, the Post-Star-Wars-Boy-Wunderkinds, but they’ve all stayed very close to home — the Hollywood studio style. Then along comes someone like Terence Malick who turns conventional movie production on it’s head, but begins to stretch our understanding of what film can be with a brilliant, visionary film like The Tree of Life.
Film is one of the most unique, complex, multi-layered, multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary art forms that we have. Paintings are storied images frozen in a moment of time. Music is an emotional movement of sound and melodies. Fictional literature is story that plays on the stage of our minds-eye. Theater is live human performance of story limited to time and place. Poetry evokes the beauty of thoughts, word associations, and evocative mental images that sing on the wavelength of our language and emotions. Every single one of these artistic medium are powerful in their own right. Film assembles and layers all these together in a time-based succession of images and sounds that can do anything we can imagine. It is the super art, and I don’t believe we’ve yet seen the Bach’s, Beethoven's, or Mozart's of film.
What I find incredibly exciting is that the Jericho Walls of Hollywood’s dominance are falling down. With new affordable technologies, digital distribution channels, and social media, we are about to enter a completely new era of filmmaking that is unshackled. All we need now are visionary filmmakers with talent, conviction, and a small support machine behind them to take film into a new era.
What surprises me is that the church has all but ignored, and even villified, this art form. We sit around debating the usefulness of film, bemoaning the latest Hollywood faith-based effort, madly citing Marshall McLuhan with the worst of proof-texting, wondering why we don’t see the likes of Bach, Handel, John Bunyan or C. S. Lewis making powerful, intelligent films. Maybe in the next ten to twenty years a Christian filmmaker will come along and show us what powerful Christian film can be.

What is your vision and goal for Glorious Films?

My immediate goal is to see Glorious become a trusted and innovative brand in the “faith-based” genre. My producing partner, Ron Mezey, and I have a slate of films in various stages of development that could keep us busy for awhile. In terms of vision, I hope Glorious will redefine the “faith-based” genre by producing cinematic films of quality and depth that will strongly crossover into the main stream market without emptying our convictions. I would also love to see Glorious become a company that can develop a new generation of talent who share my cinematic and theological convictions, and who can spawn a new wave of “faith-based” cinema.

I am honored that you have asked me to be on the advisory board for Glorious Films. Could you share with my readers what the role of the advisory board is, who is on it, and why you wanted me to be a part of it?

Our advisory board is made up of men who I hold myself accountable to spiritually, theologically and personally. Most members are 1.) theologically evangelical who hold a high view of Scripture, and 2.) are creators of some fashion, or who have an affinity for the arts or media. The board has three purposes. First, to keep my work theologically sound. Second, to provide feedback and ideas on the creative/theological application of our films. And third, to lend a degree of credibility to Glorious as an unknown company to a Christian world that has a healthy skepticism toward Christian media. And, there is an unspoken fourth purpose, which is that I have a tremendous amount of respect for these men, some who have been my heroes for many years, and knowing that they are on my board encourages me to weather the storms of production and do better work.
The development of the board has been led by Dr. Mark Coppenger, who has become a close confidant, a tremendous source of encouragement, and friend. Our board consists of yourself, Dr. Derek Thomas, Dr. Michael Haykin, Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, Trevin Wax and four men in my personal circle, Pastor Brad Melette, Pastor Rici Be, Hal Hays and the voice of Gabriel, Lon Vining.

What are some ways that my readers can help and support the mission of Glorious Films?

We need an audience who is truly motivated to be our champions in our community and circles. We call them “brand evangelists.” We have very little budget for marketing, yet in this day of social media, every post, tweet, share, like, follow, review, and comment is part of the new distribution network that we’re trying to build.
Where can readers go who want to find out more about The Promise and The Prodigal, who want to place an order, or who want to find out more about future film projects in the pre-production stages?

Our website (www.gloriousfilms.com) has more information on our films, and you can follow us on our company blog or Facebook. I will be posting more frequently there as we approach Christmas to talk about The Promise and the theological motivation behind it to recover the full nativity story.
I also have a blog on my website (toddshaffer.com) where I post articles related to Christian film and filmmaking.
The Promise can be purchased at most Christian Bookstores such as Lifeway and Family Christian. We are online at Amazon, CBD, and site licenses can be purchased through Lifeway Films. Many ask us about iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, and it will be there, but not until 2015. Prodigal is scheduled for release next Summer.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Eleven-Year-Old Scottish review of GUNS OF THUNDER


Calum (11) and "bonny-but-dim" Jackson

Book review of GUNS OF THUNDER written by Calum Morrison (11) who lives on a farm in Scotland (and who has an amazing mother who home schools him; she did not edit this review, nor have I changed it in any way)
 
Why would Ian, an American boy of Scottish descent, grow to love a Red Indian of whom he had been scared? Read Guns of Thunder to find out. In this historical novel, written by Douglas Bond, you will get to know Ian, his family, and his friends. 

Ian was decended from Scotland and he was a M’kethe. He was born and brought up in Wallop, Connecticut, and lived with his mother, his sister, his younger brother and his beloved grandfather. Before Ian was born, his father had died, so by the time he was thirteen Ian was plowing, sowing, harvesting and selling the family corn all by himself. It was in these times he met Watookoog, an Indian who was converted through Ian’s father’s teaching. When Ian was a little older, war broke out between Britain and France in the New World. Ian soon joined the Connecticut militas, who were fighting against the French. The book explains a few reasons for Ian going to war, but it highlights one special reason. However, at war things didn’t go as planned and it took Watookoog to save the day. 

There was not one part of this novel I did not enjoy. First of all, I loved the very real descriptions in the book. For example when Ian and his family were having dinner, I felt as though I could actually smell and taste the food on the table. When I was reading the book I often felt like I was right there beside Ian. 

Secondly, I enjoyed how close it was to actual history. From what I had previously read about the French and Indian war, the events in the novel fitted like a glove. For example, I knew that Red Indians had pillaged colonial farms, and I also knew that it had been difficult for the British to destroy the French, just like in the book. In this and many ways the author kept true to history. 

Finally, even though there are sad, serious and dangerous parts, there are also many funny snippets. An example could be when Ian’s cousin Roland forgets an answer in school and everybody laughs at him except Ian who stand up and rattles of an impressive answer before stating that he disagreed with the question. The teacher agreed with the question, argues against Ian, and then Roland stands up puts up an unargueable statement that proves Ian right and leaves the teacher baffled. The cousins joint effort against the teacher made for a amusing episode.

These are some of the main reasons I loved this historical novel. Read this book because its thundering guns will blow you away.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pairing Cherry Coke with Filet Mignon in Worship



Would you pair this with Cherry Coke?
“Beautiful music,” said Luther, “is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.” Polarized as we are in the church over what music qualifies as beautiful, I do wonder what Luther would have to say after he had a good listen to some of our sung worship today.  
In the last fifty years church music has undergone a radical metamorphosis. While most Christians applaud these unprecedented changes, I sometimes feel like many efforts to blend the timeless truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ with pop music modeled after the entertainment industry work about as well as pairing Cherry Coke with filet mignon
Not surprisingly, in response to the tendency of worship leaders to prefer music composed in the last fifty years, there are those who want to recover the beauty of what is often termed classical music. I have the highest regard for composers of great music like Bach and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mahler (and Luther); my music collection is full, among other things, with their music. I would love to see another generation of God’s people develop a renewed appreciation of the splendor and beauty of music that strikes the chord of eternity in worship (regardless of genre). But I wonder if our zeal to bring this about at times consumes our wisdom.
GAZING ON THE MUSIC
In my church experiences over the years, I have found myself jolted out of meditation on the Living God in worship by a liturgy feature that worries me. While I attempt to take the words of the silent prayer to heart—“Turn my heart to you, O Lord.”—I am deftly steered clear of that by a prominent text identifying the music being played, “Prelude in B-flat major, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847).” To be blunt, it strikes me as intrusively academic and, dare I say it, elitist, to be confronted with this information so prominently. While attempting to quiet my heart before the Lord in preparation for worship, I am diverted by details straight from the syllabus of a music appreciation course. 
Furthermore, I wonder how it strikes an unbelieving visitor. There’s already plenty of high register elements surrounding an unbeliever in Christian worship, and then we club him with this wholly unnecessary one. Whereas the music itself might have helped lift him above the ordinary and commonplace, the labeling in the bulletin creates a Berlin Wall, one that in all likelihood will appear to be a snub. “We are a sophisticated church of elite music snobs,” the labeling appears to be saying. “You’re welcome here if you become one too.”
HIGH-BROW MEDITATIONS
For believer or unbeliever, the placarding of the music and composer has shifted us from high thoughts of God to high-brow thoughts of Western art music. The prominent music labeling in the bulletin reminds me of the derailing distraction that happens in a liturgy where worshipers are pointed to a sculpture or painting of Jesus instead of to JESUS himself. So in this case, art enshrined on a pedestal inadvertently trumps the true Object of worship. 
The prominence of the music and the composer is made still more preeminent by what is sometimes left out. Oddly, in some bulletins we do not identify the author of the poetry in the hymns—Newton or Cowper, Watts or Wesley—yet we contort ourselves placarding the music and composer.  Oddly, as I prepare to sing, “Take my life and let it be / Consecrated Lord to thee,” I am confronted with the important fact that Franz Liszt who was born in 1811 and who died in 1886 wrote the music Consolation being now played by the musician (while poet Francis Havergal’s name is never mentioned).
WORDS COME FIRST
But what’s so wrong with drawing attention to the music and the composer? After all, in the opening pages of Genesis (4:21) it says that “Jubal was the father of all who play the lyre and pipe.” And we learn about the Sons of Korah and their important role as musicians and composers of music for worship. And don’t some Psalms lead off telling us the actual name of the tune, for example, “Doe of the Dawn” (22)? What’s the problem? It’s all right there in the Bible?
The problem is precisely because it isn’t all right there in the Bible, not in the way it is in some of our printed worship guides. In the Bible the music is only very rarely identified in the inspired liturgy of the Psalms. While the vast majority of the Psalms identify the poet who, under Divine Inspiration, wrote the poetry of the Psalm, very few of the 150 Psalms identify the name of the tune, and fewer still identify the musical composer. What's more, the smartest OT scholar on the planet does not have a clue what "Doe of the Dawn" sounded like; as much as me may wish they had, not a riff from an original Psalm tune has survived--but ever jot and tittle of the words of 150 Psalms has.
Why are the Psalms so frequently attributed to the poets but so seldom to the musicians? Likely it is because Christianity is all about the Word of God, revealed to us in a book filled with words, including the most glorious poetry ever penned. While “…music is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us,” and ought to have a central place in Christian worship, the Bible and Christian worship is first and last all about the words. 
The way some of our worship guides identify music and text, however, one would think it were the reverse. Music comes first, the words come after. I don’t believe this is our priority in worship, but simply looking at the order of service in some bulletins on a Sunday morning and it feels like this: “Turn my heart to the Sonata quasi una Fantasia Op 27. No. 2, O Lord, and turn me to Ludwig van Beethoven, and to his birth year in 1770 and to the year of his death in 1827, O Lord.” When we do this, our zeal to recover classical music has become the Cherry Coke of the metaphor.
THE SOLUTION
In the interest of doing everything we do in word and deed as we sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:16-17), a Christ-centered liturgy would do well to include neither the composer’s name nor the poet’s name in the progression through the printed guide to worship.
Let’s stop thinking of our printed liturgy as a polemic on our theology of worship in which we showcase our sophisticated classical music taste. If we do choose to identify artists, we would do well to be Psalm-like in our priority, never subordinating poetry and poet to musical composition and composer. The simplest solution? Identify hymn writers and composers in footnotes at the end of the bulletin—back page, small print, after the announcements and notifications. Soli Deo gloria!